Roanoke Valley Dulcimer group revives an art and tradition

VINTON–Kimberly Burnette-Dean and Jack Ferguson share a common interest in dulcimers. She has been playing the instrument for over 30 years. She taught him to play six or seven years ago after they were introduced by his wife, Robin.

They have formed the Roanoke Valley Dulcimers group which meets at the Vinton Public Library on the first Saturday of each month from 2 to 4 p.m. Members of the group come from all over—the immediate area, Lynchburg, Covington, Charlottesville, and beyond.

The purpose of their group is to share songs, playing techniques, and the history of the mountain dulcimer. Their goal is ultimately to reach out into the community to introduce a new generation to the instrument through educational programs and to re-introduce the dulcimer to older generations in visits to assisted living facilities. They hope to be able to perform in many venues including museums, festivals, and restaurants.

According to famed musician Ralph Lee Smith, dulcimers are “homemade, handmade, and easy to play by people with no formal knowledge of music.  The dulcimer has been around for centuries.”

According to Burnette-Dean, “In pre-electric society, folks had to make their own music. The fiddle, banjo, guitar, fife, flute, tin whistle, and dulcimer were some of the instruments available to a middle class farm family.”

Burnette-Dean grew up in a farm family herself in Meadows of Dan. She got her first dulcimer from her grandmother and father in 1982 as a Christmas gift ordered from Sears and Roebuck. She quickly mastered the accompanying sheet music for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and moved on to play her dad’s favorite “Wildwood Flower” by ear.

She started piano lessons in second grade, took up the trumpet, and went on to major in music in college, hoping to become a piano teacher or band director. For several years she was an interpreter at Virginia’s Explore Park in the 1837 Hofauger house—that’s where she met Ferguson’s wife.

In addition to playing the dulcimer, Burnette-Dean is well-known for her interest in other traditional folk arts including spinning and weaving. She is now assistant branch librarian at the Roanoke County Library’s Vinton branch, where she has established monthly “Yack and Yarn” and “Crochet Mavens” social needlework groups.

Kimberly Burnette-Dean and Jack Ferguson have formed the Roanoke Valley Dulcimers who will meet on the first Saturday of each month at the Vinton Public Library. Burnette-Dean has been playing the dulcimer for over 30 years.
Kimberly Burnette-Dean and Jack Ferguson have formed the Roanoke Valley Dulcimers who will meet on the first Saturday of each month at the Vinton Public Library. Burnette-Dean has been playing the dulcimer for over 30 years.

Burnette-Dean has played and researched dulcimers since she was a teenager and owns 10-15 dulcimers herself. She is an accomplished performer and has placed second in competition at the annual Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, where Wednesday night is Dulcimer Night.

She comes from a musical family. Her great grandfather developed quite a reputation for his talent playing the fiddle, but he had to sneak out of his house to play, as his wife said the fiddle was an “instrument of the devil” and would not let him play in their home.

Jack Ferguson says he has been playing guitar all of his life and belonged to a band in high school. He grew up on the Chesapeake Bay and moved to Roanoke in 2001. He retired from Roanoke City in 2011 as a project manager working with their public safety computer systems.

Jack Ferguson is the founder of the Roanoke Valley Dulcimers group. In addition to playing the dulcimer, he has built over 120 of the instruments since 2010.
Jack Ferguson is the founder of the Roanoke Valley Dulcimers group. In addition to playing the dulcimer, he has built over 120 of the instruments since 2010.

Ferguson not only plays the dulcimer–he is the owner and craftsman for Appalachian Flutes and Dulcimers. He started building wooden flutes in 2001 and has since sold about 300 around the world.

“My first dulcimer was built early in 2010,” said Ferguson. “I really didn’t know where I was headed with my hobby then, but knew I had to keep building them. As the demand increased, I started experimenting with wood types and combinations, not just for looks, but also for sound. Since all my wood is reclaimed, or salvaged, I made the most of all I could find; cherry, chestnut, maple, red cedar, and dogwood.”

His “signature” model is dogwood.

“Dogwood is Virginia’s State Tree/Flower, and is only available in salvaged form as it has died, or succumbed to the plant fungal disease, Anthracnose,” explains Ferguson.

So far, he has made 119 dulcimers with four more in the works. His goal is to build five each month. From picking out wood to build each instrument to strumming the finished dulcimer generally takes about two weeks. His designs include hour-glass, tear-drop, box, and scheitholt, mostly customized online orders.

“I learn something new with each dulcimer I build, and happily, as each is completed, can’t wait to start the next one,” said Ferguson. “I also love working with wood, and making music, so I feel really lucky to have a hobby that allows me to do both.”

Each new one he makes becomes his favorite and is hard to let go of when completed.

His dulcimers are unique in that the majority are made from salvaged dogwood and over half are Electric. He has taken a traditional instrument and modernized it to create more volume.

Jack Ferguson builds Electric dulcimers which have more volume than the traditional dulcimer.
Jack Ferguson builds Electric dulcimers which have more volume than the traditional dulcimer.

According to Ferguson, “the mountain dulcimer is known as the ‘Quiet Instrument’, and as such, lends itself very well to settings where the music should not overshadow the performers. Perfect examples are religious gatherings, and small family gatherings, both very common in Appalachia.”

At this point in life Ferguson is “hoping to play more, and build less.”

According to Burnette-Dean, “the mountain, lap, or Appalachian dulcimer belongs to the family of instruments known as zithers. They are direct descendants of the scheitholt, a member of the zither family found in the Pennsylvania area. The dulcimer is believed to have been developed in the region that extends from southwestern Pennsylvania to the western parts of Virginia sometime in the late 1700’s or early 1800’s.”

Mountain Dulcimers usually have 3 to 5 strings and mimic somewhat the sound of the bagpipe. They have creative sound-holes that can take any form from hearts to birds, animals, and flowers. The shape chosen for the dulcimer offers something different in the sound produced.

Songs for the dulcimer are generally hymns, ballads, and folk tunes. The dulcimer is usually played situated on the lap, not held as a guitar. Kimberly plays with a goose feather quill and stick; Ferguson with a regular pick.

This region is home to many celebrations of traditional Appalachian music, including the dulcimer. The Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College hosts the Crooked Road Dulcimer Festival each year in May.

Videos of both Burnette-Dean and Ferguson performing and speaking about the dulcimer can be found on YouTube.

His business website for Appalachian Flutes and Dulcimers can be accessed at www.appflutes.com.

Burnette-Dean says that anyone, young and old, with reasonable hand/eye coordination can learn to play the Mountain Dulcimer. There is no need to be an expert to attend the meetings of the Roanoke Valley Dulcimers or even to read music. Beginners are welcome as are those who just want to listen and learn. Often beginners start off playing background and chords.

“Lots of people have dulcimers hanging on their walls or in their closets and need to come and join the group,” she says.

Their next meeting is scheduled for November 7, depending upon the schedule for the opening of the new Vinton Library.

Ferguson will be demonstrating his craft and performing at the Artisan Saturday on October 10 at Explore Park.

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